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General Reviews

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.

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General

Singaporean Telcos and Their Chinese Mobile Gambit

One of the immutable truths of living in Singapore and reading our national broadsheet, The Straits Times, is that your Saturday morning news will be interrupted by three large and distinctly color-coded blocks of full-page advertising taken out by the major telcos: red for Singtel, green for StarHub, and orange for M1.

In the late 90s, the brands advertised consisted mainly of Nokia, Motorola, Alcatel, Sony-Ericsson, with a few models from minor players like Sharp, HTC, and Panasonic. You’ve probably recognized the ones still around. Apart from a few new entrants like Apple, Samsung, and LG, the Saturday ad landscape was quite stable for over a decade.

Something started happening this year, around the time Xiaomi launched local operations — their first market outside of the Chinese territories. New brands have started to share space alongside the established premium brands. Oppo/OnePlus. Huawei. Asus. ZTE. All very competitive spec for spec, dollar for dollar.

It’s significant that these Chinese-designed products now share equal space with the Samsungs and LGs in expensive telco media buys, in one of the world’s most saturated and advanced smartphone markets.1 There are similar products coming out of other Asian countries2, but the Chinese brands have far more visibility here.

I won’t go into how Xiaomi employs a differentiated, social media-driven sales model, but I will say that they got a lot of positive press at the start, driving home the idea that they offered comparable quality and reliability at a fraction of the cost. But they’ve been the only ones to get such an image in the mainstream mind, to my knowledge.

The rest are coming into town aggressively — Oppo opened a flagship store at Suntec City, a central mall, and I swear I’ve seen a Huawei store along Orchard Road — but their cachet seems strongest amongst the small group of tech and Android enthusiasts attracted to low-cost, high-value devices, which are replaced frequently.3 These are not mass market items yet, and I wonder when their moment will come, if at all.

What interests me is why the telcos are throwing their weight behind these entrants. Are they a bargaining chip to negotiate better hardware prices with the others, regardless of sales? Or do the postpaid 4 margins on selling already-cheap Chinese phones to consumers just look that much better? Or could it be driven by actual market demand?

My leading theory is that it’s simply a reactionary move that doesn’t consider the longer-term effects of promoting these price-disruptive products. Why? Because telcos are instinctively programmed to serve products at every available price point.

But the low price, contract-free nature of how consumers can otherwise obtain these devices is a threat to the lucrative business of locking people into contracts. Including such devices alongside premium devices in weekly advertising validates them. In the past, doing the same with a $50 Alcatel featurephone and a $500 Nokia “multimedia computer” was apples and oranges. Now, the products at both price points are much more similar, and one of them doesn’t need to be paid off in monthly installments. Legitimising cheaper smartphones inspires potential postpaid customers to simply buy a contract-free phone online (or pick one up in a store), and then save with a prepaid mobile line instead. At least that explains why Oppo is paying downtown rent on a flagship store. The telco strategy, though, that isn’t so clear.


  1. As of January 2014, Singapore had 87% smartphone penetration, with 29% of people owning more than one device. Anecdotally, the vast majority are on subsidized/contracted premium devices: iPhones, Galaxy S and Note models, etc. 
  2.  Joi Ito has a post about visiting Shenzhen that may be enlightening. 
  3. I think of this one friend as an edge case, but it’d be interesting if there were more like her: a former iPhone user, she found herself too clumsy to trust with expensive phones (they were smashed, stolen, or fell into toilets), and now uses Xiaomis because they are pretty much disposable at around USD$140 a pop. 
  4. Singapore has a bit in common with the U.S. phone market, in that only a minority pay full price or even know what the actual prices of their phones are. Everyone else pays a smaller sum upfront, with the rest of the device cost bundled into monthly fees. Some of the new Chinese phones are free/virtually free at their subsidized prices, but so are older iPhones and Samsungs, and it’s hard to see the price advantage lasting. For any brand that doesn’t enjoy the recognition of a Xiaomi, that window may close when current large-screened iPhones get priced down. 
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General Photos

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 
Categories
Reviews

Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
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Cortex Camera capture

It’s hard to believe that you can get different results from the same hardware—the same smartphone camera—just seconds apart. The first photo was taken with the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera app, which employs some impressive software techniques to improve most photos. In this case, a low-light scene forced an ISO sensitivity of 1000.

The second photo was taken with Cortex Camera, which takes a series of images over 2 seconds or so (you don’t have to keep your hands perfectly still, but still-as-possible helps). These are then combined for far less noise, more accurate colors, and higher resolution (12mp on the iPhone 5/5S, which normally take 8mp images). The default Camera.app also combines up to four captures for better photos, but is optimized to work for all situations. For any scene without moving subjects and where you have the luxury of time, Cortex delivers better results.

Camera.app 100% crop
Camera.app 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop

The shots above are 100% crops from the same scene. Note that the Cortex Camera version is both larger and more detailed. It has more potential for processing, and beats a fair few prosumer point and shoot cameras at the pixel level.

The first app to do this “supersampling” was Occipital’s ClearCam, which I used to swear by. However, like their other app 360 Panorama, ClearCam hasn’t received any updates in the wake of iOS 7, and appears to have been abandoned as the company pushes their new Kickstarter-backed project, the Structure Sensor. At this time, ClearCam makes you wait longer and has a cumbersome alignment and enhancement process. Cortex Camera just takes the picture and saves it all in one step. It’s a damn shame, because both Occipital apps were among the first and best of their kind, enabling users to do things with their iPhones that seemingly defied the capabilities of the hardware. They clearly have a knack for clever imaging technology; I just hope they take a longer view of supporting their products some day.

If you’re in the market for a new app to take and share those 360-degree panoramas, Sphere (formerly Tour Wrist) does a good job and is free. Bubbli is also promising, but captures video instead of photos to stitch a scene together, which means you have to pan slowly to get an even exposure. If you’ve got the cash and a love of new gadgets (mustnotbuymustnotbuy) Ricoh’s new Theta camera does the trick in a single click. It’s the first consumer-ready spherical capture camera and looks like a presentation remote. Simply hold it above your head and hit the button, and it takes in the entire scene. What’s more, the $400 device has built-in wifi and beams photos over to your iPhone for instant sharing. It’s not hard to imagine this feature on an iPhone a decade from now.

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General

Still Living UP

It’s been a month since I bought my Jawbone UP band, and since then I’ve incorporated a lot more walking into my life, trying to reach my goal of 8,000 steps a day. By my estimates, I probably averaged half of that before, since a lot of my time is spent at a desk, and commuting to and from it in cabs and public transport. Most days now, I do 8,000–10,000 by walking halfway home in the evenings.

I just weighed myself, and I’m back to the weight I remember being for quite awhile, up until the last couple of years when I’ve felt fatter and slower. The difference is about 3kg, not a lot, and I’d like to lose a few more kilos to get my BMI in the sweet spot.

What surprises me is how painless it’s all been. No grunting at the gym, or aching all over in the morning. Just being mindful of how much movement I should be making each day, and going out of my way to walk more. Low-impact, sustained exercise. I listen to podcasts, new music on Spotify, or think about things along the way. I get some air, and take the occasional photo (below) if I see an interesting scene. It’s great.

IMG_7565

Okay, I guess I’ve also been slightly more mindful of my caloric intake, thanks to the food diary feature of the UP app. I haven’t denied myself anything reasonable, and so there’s no need for “cheat days”. I’d consider my eating habits to be 95% the same. Still, it probably helped?

 

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General Reviews

One Week with the Jawbone UP: How its Design Inspires Behavioral Change

up-by-jawbone-lowres-015

I bought one of the newly revised Jawbone UP wristbands a week ago. For those not following the rise of wearable activity trackers such as the Nike+ FuelBand, they are essentially pedometers you put on your wrist as you go about your business each day (and wear to sleep at night, in some cases), that connect with your PC or smartphone to give you more insight into your health. The UP was one of the first products on the market, but suffered from design and manufacturing defects that led to a hasty recall and another year on the drawing board before it was finally re-released last Christmas.

It all started with using the free Moves iPhone app (by the Finnish company ProtoGeo) for about a week, during which I got a taste for recording and quantifying my movements. When I saw the UP on sale locally, it was an easy purchase. It’s only been a week, but it has been a behavior-altering experience for me so far. Along with its companion app, the UP provides a couple of key features.

  • Activity reports
  • Food logging
  • Sleep quality tracking
  • Social network awareness
  • Fiddle-free design
  • Comfort and style

Activity reports

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Open up the app and you’ll see at a glance how you’re doing against your set objectives. A healthy target is 10,000 steps a day, but few sedentary workers can meet that. Because UP is an internet-connected service, it’s able to tell you what others like you (in age, gender, height, and weight) are averaging. In my case, the average most do is about 5,500 steps a day. I decided to set myself a high but achievable goal of 8,000 steps.

What’s happened since? I’ve found myself striving to reach that by alighting one bus stop ahead of my destinations, taking the long way around the office, and going for more short walks whenever I can.

It translates your activity into calories burnt, which it shows you alongside an estimate of how many calories you burn just resting, and a total for each day. Every now and then, the application shows you “Insights”; pre-written facts and advice tailored to your own performance. Examples include deciphering hidden patterns in your behavior and mood, and helping you understand terms like “you walked 8,000 steps” with statements such as “equivalent to walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and back”.

Food logging

This part is optional, but you can enter your meals (or just photos of them) to keep a record of what you’ve eaten. If they’re available in the online database, nutritional information is attached. It has the same effect as using an expense tracking app: it makes you acutely aware of every little bit you put into your body, and alerts your conscience to the unnecessary.

In practice, having a vague idea of how many calories I’m consuming, coupled with the knowledge of how much I’m burning (or NOT burning, on idle days) has been powerful. If I know that I’ve only moved a minimal amount all afternoon, any random urge to snack quickly meets a mental roadblock — “Why would I need more calories?”

Sleep quality tracking

Like the popular Sleep Cycle app, the UP band can monitor your movements in the middle of the night, and map out your light vs. deep periods of sleep on a graph. And then at the best possible time close to your intended waking hour, it will silently vibrate in the morning.

You are asked to set a sleep goal for yourself, and along with all the other data it collects, this is plotted over a timeline of days, weeks, and months, which illustrates how good you’ve been at getting the sleep and exercise you need.

Social network awareness

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This is easily one of the best features of the UP. Other people can be added as “teammates” and their activities populate your Home screen, turning it into an Instagram of physical activity. You’re encouraged to inspect their details, leave comments, or react with a small selection of emoticons. You might see that a friend had a healthier lunch, or walked far more than you, or slept better than you. These events nudge you into behavior change.

When I started, one of the only people it found for me to add to my “team” was someone living in Japan that I only follow on Twitter and YouTube. I asked, she said ‘Sure’. I don’t know her personally at all, but I’ve found that reading UP’s activity feed is a unique interaction different from regular status updates. Being able to correlate your own physical state with another person’s through shared metrics, leads to a different sense of awareness; any encouragement you receive resonates that much more. Her most active day blew me away at over 24,000 steps, followed by 11 hours of sleep. It really spurred me on to try and find the time for activity. Multiply that by the number of people you follow, and the social features become an extremely compelling component.

On my second day, two more people I interact with online bought their own. On the third, my girlfriend joined in.

Fiddle-free Design

While the UP is not designed to be worn and forgotten — its constant presence serves to remind you of your goals — it is designed to be worn and left alone. Its long battery life (about 7-10 days) is one of the ways in which this is obvious. Charging via USB only takes about 80 mins, which you can easily do while idle.

In chasing this long battery life, the UP eschews Bluetooth syncing, which other products like the Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand have. To sync the UP, one must remove it and plug one end into a smartphone’s headphone jack. Jawbone recommends doing this about twice a day to keep up with your own stats and update your team. On the other wristbands, one only has to start the app, and they sync wirelessly.

I actually think this omission is a strength.

Like how shooting on film frees you from constantly checking how the photo came out on the little digital screen, thereby letting you take more photos and experience the scene you’re in, not continuously syncing the UP creates mystery, anticipation, and actually lets you get on with it and not fiddle with tracking apparatus every spare minute.

In his excellent essay about using a FitBit, Paris and the Data Mind, Craig Mod described looking at the LED display and seeing that he had climbed 96 flights of stairs one day. The next thing he did was walk halfway across the flat town of Palo Alto to the nearest flight of stairs he knew of, so that he could shift that number to read 100. It sounds like great exercise, but I don’t want to obsess over live numbers or end up conducting accuracy tests each day over how many steps it’s counting.

The UP way, you’re wondering things like “will I break my record today?”, and if you’re extra competitive, “I hope I don’t lose to so-and-so,” as you go about your business. Sometimes, by not knowing, you exceed your targets. And then you sync at the end of the day, and it’s like waiting for lottery numbers to be called out. It’s its own kind of fun.

Comfort and style

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The UP is available in 8 colors, of which 3 are available here in Singapore right now. I got the Black (sorry, Onyx), and it’s pretty nondescript and unlikely to draw attention. The brighter colors pop more, and show off a subtle zig-zag texture that identifies it as part of the company’s product range under design chief Yves Béhar. None of them are what you’d expect a “wearable computing device” to look like. The only button is cleverly hidden, looking like an integrated design feature. Two LED lights are embedded beneath the hypoallergenic rubber surface, and only visible when lit. It’s much thinner than the FuelBand, and could easily be mistaken for one of those Livestrong-type charity support wristbands from a few feet away.

These things help with making the UP an invisible part of daily life, which gives it potential to succeed at being adopted by more. But as the wearer, I always feel its presence (at least in this first week). The routines I’m developing around the app, around thinking about moving more, burning more, eating less, around how my teammates improve themselves, are the very definition of behavior change.

If having visualized, connected, and actionable data on your own body and movements sounds interesting to you, the UP will probably be a great addition to your life.